Circular economy wastes nothing, changes everything


Two Flemish companies are branching out into the world of sustainable food deliveries, where organic produce meets re-usable packaging

Right to your door

Christophe Kemel heads home from the restaurant where he works, exhausted after an evening’s service. Come 3am, he’s in the kitchen again, this time at home, preparing salads for his new day job.

He’s one of three young men branching out together from the restaurant trade into a brave new world of sustainable food deliveries.

Their concept, Jarheads, provides healthy lunches served in re-usable glass jars (pictured), which customers can either keep and use again or return with the next delivery. Launched just last month, they’re among a small but growing cohort of companies with an eye on providing top-quality takeaway food without the accompanying waste packaging. And they’re growing fast.

“I’ve worked in restaurants and catering for a long time, but this is very different,” Kemel says. “The biggest thing behind it is the jars; that’s our selling point. At the moment, we work from our houses: there’s no physical location, no restaurant, so our branding has to be very strong. Back in the day, you just opened a restaurant; now you have to start a concept. And if your branding isn’t right, you’ve got nothing.”

The idea for the company sprouted from Kemel’s discussions with two colleagues, a pair of fitness fanatics frustrated by how hard it can be to find healthy takeaway food. “You see that a lot of people want to change and eat more healthily, but you have to make it very easy for them,” he explains. “We have to maintain what we’re doing now and try to improve. What my mother always taught me is that if you do something, you should do it well.”

Zero waste

Jarheads currently serves Mechelen, Antwerp and Brussels, supplying mainly offices, with a minimum order of €30. The menu is made up of salads, soups, spring rolls and a few desserts, priced between €4 and €10, with a small deposit for the container.

And because details are important, the cutlery, too, is environmentally friendly – organic plastic made from corn and chalk. As for the delivery process, there are plans afoot to make it more sustainable.

“In the city centres, we’re looking to do deliveries by bike, because it will be so much quicker,” Kemel says. “We lose a lot of time on transport. I’ve had people ask ‘how do you deliver, is it sustainable?’ but I can’t deliver by horse and carriage! Eventually, we want to do things like electric bikes, but we’ve only been going for a week.”

We’re too efficient to have leftovers, so now we just order a little extra and give it away to charity

- Christophe Kemel

Their original idea was to team up with a charity and give away the leftovers, but in reality, the business is run too efficiently for that. “DakAnt in Antwerp helps disadvantaged families with food,” says Kemel. “But in the end, we don’t have a lot of waste because I’m careful about what I order. So now I just order a little extra and give it away.”

Meanwhile, in Brussels, two brothers have begun delivering curry and rice in metal tiffin carriers, which they pick up a few hours later to be washed, refilled and redelivered. And across town in Kraainem, the man behind Cirkle is scaling up the food-with-a-conscience concept in a big way.

In a previous life, Ben Bramich was an engineer for Toyota. While working in Japan – a country that’s big on efficient systems for reducing waste – he became interested in the circular economy, in which an industry keeps resources in use for as long as possible, extracting the maximum value, rather than disposing of a product after use.

For a good cause

“They have some really clever ways of doing things in Japan,” he says. “It’s a mentality – how you use spare capacity and reduce waste.” So he started wondering about how to manage a home delivery service where the vans would always be full, instead of returning to the depot empty. Why not combine food delivery with recycling collection?

And so Cirkle was born. Customers sign up, order their shopping – organic fruit and vegetables, dairy, meat, beer, bread, cheese and more – on the trilingual website and choose a delivery slot. When the drivers come to drop off food boxes, they take away old boxes filled with glass and other recyclables, old light bulbs, corks, batteries, water filters and electrical waste, as well as donations of books, clothes, CDs and even tinned food destined for charities.

We grew quite quickly through word of mouth among the expat community

- Ben Bramich

Juices, oil and vinegar come in reusable bottles, dried fruit and cereals are packaged in compostable paper bags, and the boxes themselves are used time and again.

“I was interested in organic food and sustainable farming, and I knew organic baskets were a big thing in other countries, but at the time, in 2008, it wasn’t very well developed here at all,” Bramich explains. “In the end, I quit my job and started to do deliveries in the back of my car. We grew quite quickly, through word of mouth among the expat community.”

Eighteen months ago the company got funding from SI2, a social investment organisation, which helped them to scale up the business. “What we’re doing is a really nice example of the circular economy,” he says. “The donations work well, and we get so much stuff back. We have designated charities, and we even have a food bank.”

Reuse everything

The glass they collect generates the most money, he explains, in addition to providing a service for customers. “We pick out the bottles that have a deposit on them, we exchange them for cash and all of that goes to our charity of the month. It’s between €50 and €100 a month, which doesn’t sound that much, but it’s money for nothing.” 

The company has about 700 customers who’ve ordered in the last three months, resulting in about 300 deliveries a week. “People are buying more from us because we’re adding to the range all the time,” Bramich says.

Our target market are people who want top-quality produce that’s good for the environment

- Ben Bramich

Coming soon is a collaboration with a restaurant to offer ingredients for whole meals in reusable glass jars for customers to prepare at home. Re-usable packaging for prepared meals is a real challenge, he says. “There are a lot of logistical hurdles to doing it efficiently and for it to be appealing to a customer. You have to make it easy for them.”

If there’s a deposit taken on a container, for example, how does the customer deal with it? Do they have to return it to a specific place? Who takes care of the cleaning, and who pays for that? Cirkle originally charged for its collection service, but Bramich decided to make life simpler for everyone by removing this cost.

The next step

Customers like the fact that there’s no waste, he says, but re-usable packaging adds cost to their operation; it’s more expensive than using disposable packaging, and that’s perhaps why it hasn’t really taken off more widely.

Bramich: “Keeping the costs down is quite difficult. What we sell is not a cheap product – organic produce never is – and our target market is really the more affluent people in Brussels, who want top-quality produce but also want to do something that’s good for the environment.”

Cirkle’s reach stretches as far east as Leuven, and they’ve just begun doing deliveries (but not collections) in Mechelen and Antwerp through Combo, a service run by Bpost. “We do want to start doing it ourselves because then we can do the recycling there, too,” he says.

The company’s location – a former dairy factory and wine cellar beneath a creche on a quiet suburban street – seems at first glance an unlikely home for this expanding business. “But we’re right in the middle of where we need to be for our customer base,” says Bramich. “It’s perfect.” 

Some packaging facts

When re-using packaging at home isn’t possible, there’s always the option to recycle. Collections vary depending on where you live. According to Fost Plus, the organisation charged with sorting and recycling packaging in Belgium:

  • All 589 municipalities in the country have access to collections of sorted household packaging waste
  • Every year, approximately 700,000 tons of packaging are recycled in Belgium. This translates to about 30kg of glass, 16kg of plastic and metal, and 65kg of paper and cardboard per inhabitant
  • 90% of the packaging Fost Plus collects is recycled

Photos courtesy of Jarheads and Cirkle